Though many Palestinians have sought to remain neutral throughout the Syrian fighting, others have joined opposition groups and some have thrown their weight behind pro-Assad militias. According to Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, a Yarmouk-based activist network, more than 1,100 Palestinians from the Yarmouk camp have been killed in the Syrian civil war.
As a result of the siege, humanitarian goods trickled in at a snail’s pace until it eventually came to a complete stop on March 28, when the United Nations could no longer access the camp. Shortly thereafter, the Islamic State launched a successful military offensive on Yarmouk in early April and took over more than 90 percent of the camp.
Since then, calculating the exact number of people who stayed has become impossible. “It’s very clear several thousand have fled since then,” Pierre Krahenbuhl, the head of UNRWA for Palestinian refugees, said earlier this month.
Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s advocacy and communications director, says that Yarmouk’s residents are enduring malnutrition and starvation in addition to the ongoing violent attacks by both the Assad regime and rebel groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
He spoke with Syria Deeply about the human impact of the Syrian civil war on Palestinians in refugee camps and communities across Syria, including Yarmouk.
Syria Deeply: Can you explain how the conditions have changed for Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk throughout the Syrian conflict? What is the human impact of the Islamic State’s recent takeover of the camp?
Chris Gunness: The situation currently in Yarmouk is beyond inhumane. Don’t forget that when ISIS took over the camp, the U.N. secretary general [Ban Ki Moon] said that it was akin to one of the lowest circles of hell, that the refugee camp had become a death camp. Well, the bad news for the residents of Yarmouk and those trying to bring humanitarian assistance is that it’s gotten unbelievably worse since the world’s top diplomat gave Yarmouk that characterization.
We have been doing emergency work with more than 3,000 people who fled from Yarmouk into neighboring areas. What we’re finding is that around one-third of the children we see have severe malnutrition, and about half of the children are malnourished in one form or another. This was already a community where women were dying in childbirth due to the lack of medicine; where children were reportedly starving to the death; where children were eating weeds and grass to survive; where children were reduced to scooping up dirty water in the streets for drinking.
It is beyond unimaginable, which is why we say that the time for humanitarian action alone has long since passed. We need concerted political action to deal with the consequences of what is a profound political crisis.
Syria Deeply: What are the biggest challenges for UNRWA in delivering humanitarian aid and providing protection to those who have stayed in the camp?
Chris Gunness: The biggest problem is access. We have had no access to Yarmouk since March 28. For months now, it has been impossible for us to get into the camp. We knew that people had been holed up in their shattered homes under bombardment [before the ISIS takeover]. We knew that the situation was absolutely dire. But now it is absolutely impossible for us to say just how bad it is.
Until June 7, we had been getting access to the surrounding areas. Because of the work of our medical team, our education staff and other departments, we’ve been able to gauge what the situation is like inside the camp. The picture that emerges is of a completely shattered society, where standards of public health have plummeted to levels that are below inhumane. In Yarmouk, there is untold depravity and suffering.
Syria Deeply: You mentioned the need for a political solution to address to humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk. Has there been any meaningful progress by the relevant political actors – the Syrian regime, Syrian rebels or Palestinian factions – towards addressing that crisis?
Chris Gunness: Frankly, there has been absolutely no political progress. Everyone should take a look at the latest report of the U.N. investigators led by Paulo Pinheiro, who recently reported on the humanitarian and human rights situation not just in Yarmouk but elsewhere. It gives you an idea of the depth to which the political failure has descended.
To quote one of the lines of that report, “With each passing day there are fewer safe places in Syria, as evidenced by the mass displacement of civilians within and out of the country.” Finally, the report laments everyday decisions such as whether to visit a neighbor or go out and buy a loaf of bread. That really says it all. If buying bread has become a life-or-death decision, then what more can symbolize and illustrate with greater depth of tragedy the failure of the political process in Syria?
Syria Deeply: In addition to Palestinians from Yarmouk, many have been displaced from other camps across the country. What kind of hardships are they facing in new host communities?
Chris Gunness: Just to be clear, most of the Palestinians in Syria have been internally displaced. We have some evidence that many of them have gone to live with family and friends in other refugee camps, but seven of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Syria have been very badly damaged. The situation they face in new camps is often as dire as the situation they left.
We know that about 45,000 Palestinian refugees who were in Syria have fled to Lebanon, while another 15,000 have ended up in Jordan. The options of these people are very limited because both the Lebanese and the Jordanians have effectively closed their borders to Palestinians from Syria. That means they either go through very dangerous rebel-held areas to find their way into Europe, which according to U.N. reports is increasingly happening, or they take their chances on the sea and put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous human smugglers. They have to pay [human smugglers] vast amounts of money, and on many occasions this has resulted in shipwrecks and death in the Mediterranean.
The sense of regional vulnerability and the sense that Palestinians cannot find a place in the Middle East region are both growing.The clear message to donor governments in Europe is … that if you don’t deal with the humanitarian crisis in the region, people are left with no choice but to find their way into Europe, where those governments will eventually have to deal with it.
Our ability to provide services such as education and primary health care varies from region to region. We have been able to increase school enrolment through distance learning. We have been able to continue with very basic medical services. For example, in Yarmouk’s neighboring areas, we have been able to set up health centers for Palestinian refugees who are displaced yet again.
In Lebanon, the Palestinians are barred from working. This means that they can only really get help from UNRWA or have to work illegally, which puts them at risk. The situation is appalling for them. The majority of Palestinians from Syria in Lebanon have gone to [pre-existing] Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. There are extreme restrictions of movement in those camps. When I was last in the Shatila camp, I met a family of Palestinians from Yarmouk who were paying $200 dollars a month to a landlord. Starting this month, UNRWA is going to have cut a $100 monthly rental subsidy due to our lack of funding.
Syria Deeply: What does the international community need to do in order to prevent further displacement of Palestinians in Syria? What can be done to prevent more massacres like the ones that took place when ISIS first took over Yarmouk?
Chris Gunness: To be quite clear, our donors have been generous. UNRWA has received large amounts of money. But the fact is it’s the political failure of these very same donor countries that is driving up the needs [of Palestinian refugees in Syria and elsewhere]. Look at what happened in Gaza last summer: that was the tragic result of political failure to resolve the underlying problems of the Gaza conflict. Look at what is happening in the West Bank, where Palestinian refugees are facing all sorts of hardship: that is the direct result of the political failures of all parties to end the occupation. Syria is no different. The civil war in Syria is the direct result of divisions in the U.N. Security Council and all sorts of other political divisions. Although our donors have been generous, they have not been generous enough to keep pace with the needs that come as a direct result of their political failures.
In Syria this year, we put out an appeal for $415 million. At present that is only 27 percent funded. The majority of that is to pay for cash distributions. In a situation like this, when so many of our facilities have been hit or damaged, we can no longer deliver education or health services like before. Thus, we have to give out cash [to cover or partially cover these services].
Last year, our emergency appeal for Syria was only 52 percent funded. We were only able to hand out about 50 cents per Palestinian refugee per day. What kind of life does any refugee have in Syria or elsewhere when they are surviving on 50 cents per day?
Syria Deeply: What can we expect for Palestinian refugees from Syria in the near future?
Chris Gunness: What unites all Palestinian refugees – whether in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan or Syria – is that they do not have a just and durable solution, which is what all refugees in the world want. Nobody wants to be a refugee. Nobody wants to be dispossessed. Nobody wants to be exiled. Until Palestinian refugees in Syria and elsewhere are taken out of their dispossession and provided with a political resolution to their plight, the Middle East will continue to be a very unstable place.